What is Gong?
What is this supposed to be?
Why is it in a teapot?
To answer these questions, we must first answer the question:
Who is this?
Meet Daevid Allen, Australian-born musician, fouding member of Soft Machine and the band Gong. However, to call Gong a band hardly does them justice. Gong was, and still is, a way of life, a philosophy, a belief, a mythology – one that has spawned numerous spin-off bands including Gong-Expresso, Gongmaison, Mother Gong, New York Gong and the Gong Global Family. Though Daevid left the physical world in the Spring of 2015, his legacy survives.
Gong has been described by skeptics as a ‘cult’ band, to which Daevid retorts, ‘to us, this means a band which too few people love too much’.
How did it all get started, and what is it all about?
In 1966, Daevid had a vision. He recounts:
I gained the impression that I was an experiment being supervised by intelligences far beyond my normal level of awareness. I would later call these intelligences ‘Octave Doctors’. I also saw myself on stage in front of a large rock festival audience, experiencing a connection with them that had the quality of intense LOVE. At the same time, I was surrounded by an enormous cone of etheric light drawing astral shadows from deep below us and dissolving them in the downpouring radiance focused at its peak.
Before long, the act of offering myself to the powers that combine, energise and transform all that lives through music became my only reason to exist. I became aware of my life purpose.
Soon after, Daevid helped form Soft Machine, named after William Burroughs’ book of the same name. A brief synopsis of the book gives some idea of why Daevid was so interested in it:
A secret agent with the ability to change bodies or metamorphose his own body using ‘U.T.’ (undifferentiated tissue), makes a time travel machine and takes on a gang of Mayan priests who use the Mayan Calendar to control the minds of slave labourers used for planting maize. The calendar images are written in books and placed on a magnetic tape and transmitted as sounds to control the slaves. The agent manages to infiltrate the slaves and replace the magnetic tape with a different message: “burn the books, kill the priests”, which causes the downfall of their regime.
Daevid was clearly very taken by the idea that sound, and therefore music, had the power to influence people, their thoughts, emotions and actions. From this point until the end of his life, he would be a consummate musician, using his music as a tool to bring joy, understanding, love and peace to everyone he encountered all over the world.
Soft Machine started out playing in London’s UFO club (pronounced ‘you-foh’), along with the likes of Procol Harum and Pink Floyd. Here is Daevid performing his poetry with the band at UFO in 1967 to a mesmerised audience amid a psychedelic light show.
Despite their success, Daevid was dissatisfied with Soft Machine, feeling they ‘lacked the spiritual integrity’ he was looking for. He left the band, left London, and found himself in Paris, experimenting with his electric guitar and ‘a boxful of nineteenth century gynaecological instruments processed through an echo box’. He began jamming with Gilli Smyth (or Shakti-Yoni Space Whisper, as she is credited on a few Gong albums) and a host of other musicians, ‘improvising around nothing for hours on end, completely stoned.’
This formed the foundations of Gong.
The band began living and recording together in a kind of hippy commune in Avignon in the south of France. Their being in such close and constant contact with each other allowed them to develop the extremely tight and polished ensemble sound that would come to characterise the band.
Not only that, but Daevid began developing the mythology of the Planet Gong which became the subject of many subsequent albums. The world of Daevid’s imagination is a surreal and absurd one. He considered humour very important, believing that ‘laughter was a vital ingredient’ in what he described as ‘a cultural and spiritual revolution’.
Here is the Gong mythology (or at least, my understanding of it) in a nut-shell:
- Far away, there exists a planet called Gong, home to the Octave Doctors, to whom we are little more than primitive animals with limited dimensional capabilities, and the Pot-Head Pixies.
- The Pot-Head Pixies, the most numerous inhabitants of the Planet Gong, travel between worlds in flying teapots.
- Zero the Hero, (Daevid’s alter-ego), travels to the Planet Gong with the help of inter-galactic wandering atheist missionary, Captain Capricorn.
- YOU is the state of enlightenment that the Gongfolk are all trying to achieve.
- Once you have become YOU, you may experience life in higher dimensions, like the Octave Doctors. This is known as ‘going to Everywhere’.
Those wishing to become Gongscholars should read the more detailed explanation of the characters in the mythology on Gong’s website.
What about the music?
Gong’s musical influences cover a vast range. The band flits effortlessly between psychedelic rock, musique concrète, jazz, French waltzes and poetry, to name but a few.
Gong’s golden age, before Daevid left the band (due to a ‘wall of force’ preventing him from going on stage at a gig in 1975), includes 3 albums known as the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy. Let’s take a look at some highlights from each.
Flying Teapot (1972)
Having found their musical style in their previous release, Camembert Electrique, the band now begin to perfect it. This album is the perfect place to start listening to Gong. It has it all: mesmeric grooves, absurdly catchy tunes, trancy synth soundscapes and perhaps the filthiest chromatic riff in all of Gongdom which you can hear at the end of this video:
Also noteworthy in this track is saxophonist Didier Malherbe’s playing which is suitably untamed and raucous. The band apparently found Malherbe living in a cave in France, alerted to his presence by the sound of his sax echoing around the hills.
Angel’s Egg (1973)
While Flying Teapot was mainly focussed on extended improvisation, Angel’s Egg showcases the band’s songwriting skill. Selene is a sumptuously smooth ode to the Planet Gong’s moon Goddess, with the delicacy of King Crimson’s I Talk to the Wind, and the perfect pacing of Pink Floyd’s Breathe. On the other hand, Eat That Phone Book Coda is a wild, eclectic masterpiece of complex rhythmic word-setting.
But the album’s highlight is without a doubt Oily Way, with its infectious grooves and melodies.
For songwriting and extended jams, You is the best of both worlds. Isle of Everywhere is a masterclass in how to make a little material go a long way. With just one riff, the band constructs a hypnotic space-rock odyssey, ever-modulating, ever-building and ever changing time signatures.
But the strongest track on the album is Master Builder, a tour de force performance from every band member, especially drummer Pierre Moerlan who would take up Daevid’s mantle of bandleader after he left.
I leave you with A PHP’s Advice, which concisely encapsulates everything great about Daevid’s songwriting. It’s absurd, cheeky and, above all, catchy – not to mention its intriguing and inventive instrumentation: it’s not every day you hear bubbles, pops and tongue-clicks used as percussion.